Celebrate Constitution Day by Supporting Civic Literacy

September 17th is Constitution Day in the United States.  Since it’s not a national holiday in the outdoor BBQ sense, it will probably not be on anyone’s radar.

And that’s a shame.

In all of recorded history, are there any documents that rise above the U.S. Constitution in its impact on human freedom?  Perhaps a few…but in the family photo of such things, our Constitution is in the first row, front and center.

Civic literacy is something we associate with the social studies curriculum in primary and secondary school.  Based on statistics gleaned from just about every poll and survey in the public domain, civics—government, history, etc.—is something perhaps learned, but quickly forgotten.

According to the Civic Mission of Schools web site (, the numbers reflecting the adult population’s understanding of basic American civics is less a report and more of an indictment. One-third of Americans could name all three branches of the federal government; one-third couldn't name any. Only 47 percent of Americans know that a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court carries the same weight as a 9-0 decision.

Not yet worried about the future of our democracy?  In mid-term elections (when

the presidency is not on the ballot), turnout has not broken 50 percent for the past 16 cycles.

What is the foundation of this apathy?  Is it the polarization of our political discourse in general?  The busy lives of people as they go about their daily business?  The weather?  All or none of the above?

Or, sadly, is it weakness in civic literacy education? A sense of civic responsibility is best planted when our children are surrounded by smart teachers who inculcate the benefits of knowing how our system of government works, how it was constructed, and why men and women have fought and died to preserve it.

The Simon Youth Foundation is dedicated to working with our schools and ancillary organizations to raise the level of civic awareness among our students.  Through an increased understanding and enthusiasm about the role of citizens in government, we hope to make civic literacy a point of pride.

Our nation is passing through one of its greatest periods of trial in our 238-year history.  We need everyone—regardless of income or education level—to pay attention to the currents of democracy.

While rising to the occasion has always been a hallmark of the American people, we cannot rely on this phenomenon as a means of addressing the critical problems of our country and its future.  The civic responsibility inherent in the freedoms we all enjoy demands a literacy rate far above our current standards.

For more on Constitution Day, please visit For more information about civic literacy, including access to national resources and research, please visit 

Wishing Continued “Soxcess” for 2014 SYF Scholarship Recipient, Jeremy Garriga

Contributed by Jen Pittman, Vice President of Programs at Simon Youth Foundation

As a parent, I work hard every day to make my children happy and put them in a position to succeed.  I give them all the love I can, provide them with support and encouragement, and tell them that their hard work will be recognized and rewarded. 

I like to think all these wonderful truths and feelings will be enough; but I know, sometimes, that it takes a little extra to make dreams come true and hope a reality.

Through the Simon Youth Community Scholarship Program, SYF strives to be the “little extra” that students, parents, and schools need to meet their goals and secure a brighter future.  Frequently, we are lucky enough to get affirmation of our mission through a note from a student or parent.

Just such a note came to us this summer from Jeremy Garriga.  Jeremy lives in New Jersey and recently received a Simon Youth Community Scholarship from Newport Centre to attend college this fall.

Jeremy Garriga, Scholarship Recipient
Jeremy is more than just a young man headed to Seton Hall University to major in pre-med with a goal of being a neurosurgeon and medical researcher.  He is also a young entrepreneur, volunteer and philanthropist.

While still in high school, Jeremy founded Soxcess – an initiative dedicated to providing new socks and other basic necessities to those in need.  In three years, Soxcess provided hundreds of socks and other goods to shelters in New Jersey and a pediatric hospital.  Jeremy even partnered with LUSH and Target, and these retailers provided donated goods and volunteer service.

Jeremy’s SYF scholarship will go toward his tuition and the overall cost of attending Seton Hall.  He earned it by putting into practice all the things he was taught by others and all the amazing things he taught himself.

Our 2015 scholarship program is just around the corner.  Soon, we’ll be looking in every community that is home to a Simon property for our next class of scholarship recipients.  We know there are incredible college-bound high school students, like Jeremy, whose dreams will be more readily attainable with a “little extra” help, and SYF would be proud to play a role in their educational pursuits.  Learn more about Simon Youth Community Scholarships at

Making More of the Future than a Hard Life Inherited

Contributed by J. Michael Durnil, Ph.D., President and CEO, Simon Youth Foundation

The calendar tells me it’s “back to school” time, but I am still thinking about an experience I had during this past spring’s graduation season. I have the privilege to represent SYF at Simon Youth Academy graduations, and my very favorite part of this experience is standing in the receiving line of well-wishers and shaking the hands of graduates as they cross the stage to receive their diplomas.

2014  Graduates from Simon Youth Academy at Northgate Mall
As part of my graduation remarks, I always make it a point to tell the students and assembled audiences that every member of the SYF team is humbled by the fact that we played some small part in helping change a student’s life.  This year, as a young man crossed the stage, he extended the duration of the hand shake just a little longer than most, looked me in the eye, and said, “Sir, SYF didn’t change my life. It saved my life.”

I could stop there, but his declaration is the beginning of my story.

An ongoing topic of conversation in the office, especially as we try to grow the awareness of the work of the Simon Youth Foundation, is how great it would be if editorial boards at major newspapers (or even smaller papers) could get as excited as we do about the stories of our students, teachers, partner schools, and Simon Mall leaders who are working together to create real change. Sounds simple. But the concept is surprisingly complex. It’s difficult to explain, and even more difficult for some to comprehend unless they have personally experienced the challenges our students, teachers and even community advocates face.

Our goal at SYF is to make sure we provide as many opportunities as we can for our Academies, partner school districts and communities in an effort to minimize the effects of disadvantages. In short, taking students from being “at-risk” to what we like to call “at-promise.”

The demographics and statistics about the students we have the great fortune to work with can be staggering. We are extraordinarily proud of our 90% graduation rate, especially when you couple it with the understanding that 35% of our students are the first ones in their family to receive a high school diploma. And to be clear, that 90% graduation rate isn’t some 10% ahead of the 2012 National Center for Education Statistics reported percentage of 80%. The SYF delta of change is a full 90%; none of the students who are served by our partner schools through the Simon Youth Academies were destined to graduate high school.

In SYF-ese, we want them to “Start here. Go anywhere.”

As we start back to school, gather our supplies, and hope to harness the excitement of the new year and opportunities ahead, let’s work together to ignite hope in our students – hope that their future isn’t just a hard life inherited; but through the empathy of our stakeholders, that their future is a new legacy for their family and community.

Here’s to a great school year.

I’m already looking forward to graduation day, when I will once again have the privilege of shaking hands with more than a thousand hard-working students.


#BeMonumental on 11.1.14

Lace up those “power of orange” sneakers, and get ready to make a monumental difference in a student’s life!

On Saturday, November 1, 2014, runners of all ages and ability levels from beginners to elite marathoners will hit the fast, flat, scenic course of the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, Half Marathon, Monumental 5k and Kids Fun Run.  Heading into its 7th year, the Monumental is Indiana's largest and fastest marathon and among the 100 largest marathons in the world.

Along with educating youth about the benefits of healthy living, and combating community deterioration, the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon is passionate about helping organizations that support education – including Simon Youth Foundation.  In the last six years, the Monumental has donated more than $500,000 to local public school charities. SYF is honored to be among the recipients and proud to partner once again with Indianapolis Monumental Marathon.
Join us on November 1, 2014 in downtown Indy to run or walk in support of a great cause.  Save $5 when you register with the code SYF, and $5 will be donated to Simon Youth Foundation.   Visit 


Simon Partnerships, Two Summer Events Generate $350K in Support for SYF

Summertime is the season for golf and backyard get-togethers, and this year Simon served up both . . . with a generous, orange twist.  Simon employees and corporate partners hit the links at Legends Golf Course in Franklin, Indiana on June 27th for the 7th Annual Tees for Education, and they gathered again to mingle and soak up summer on July 12th for the 3rd Annual Founders Celebration.  The two events combined to generate $350,000 in support for Simon Youth Foundation!

Founders Celebration attendees also had an opportunity to experience the true impact of SYF on the life of an individual student when they met Brandon Pressley – a 2013 graduate of Simon Youth Academy at Opry Mills. Brandon’s story captivated Simon employees earlier in 2014, and his presence this summer was a pleasant surprise for SYF’s founders, founding board members and most steadfast supporters. 

At SYF, every penny raised is put to good use.  Every $1,000 raised is celebrated, as it builds capacity to serve one more student. $350,000 raised brings impact at a level that’s almost difficult to imagine.  Through the generosity of Simon employees and corporate partners, two events alone will completely support 350 students from enrollment in a Simon Youth Academy through graduation day.  350 students like Brandon will have brighter futures. That’s the #PowerOfOrange!

Long list of firsts characterizes SYF Scholarship recipient

Karla Garcia is a 2014 Simon Youth Community Scholarship recipient, a first-generation American, the first in her family to graduate from high school and the first in her family to attend college.  She was kind enough to send the following note to SYF, and we want to share it with our supporters and advocates – the people who have made it possible for us to play a role in Karla’s educational pursuits.

Dear SYF team,

Thank you for your generous contribution toward my higher education through the Simon Youth Scholarship program.  One month ago, I became the first person in my family to graduate from high school, and in a few weeks, I’ll be the first to attend college.

My parents are from a small, rural pueblo in Mexico, where the violation of basic civil rights is part of everyday life.  It’s no place to raise children.  My parents sacrificed everything and moved away from family and friends to provide me an opportunity to pursue the American dream – to fulfill my potential – in this blessed nation.

Here, in our great country, I am free.  I have a voice.  I am independent.  And I can be prosperous! The journey as a first-generation American has not been easy, but it has been entirely worth it.  I am so blessed by wonderful people and organizations – like SYF – that support youth like me in realizing and pursuing our dreams.

When my father first came to the United States at the age of 16, his very first job was at the power plant at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  This fall, I will be able to return to UNC, not as a laborer, but as a college student.  I am the eldest in my family and hope to set the example of hard work, resilience and discipline for my younger siblings.

As I enter my college career and professional life, my mission is to make the lives of others better and to serve selflessly.  Professionally, I hope to contribute to closing the education gap for minorities, so that we diversify the leadership of our country, and hence, bring forth unique knowledge and experiences.  I also hope to enter the realm of local politics and public affairs . . . perhaps on the school board, city council, Congress, and maybe even the Presidency one day. “Karla in 2040” has a nice ring to it!

Thank you for making this possible.

With the most sincere gratitude,
Karla G. Garcia
2014 Graduate and SYF Scholarship Recipient

1,000 diplomas = $350,000,000 impact

One by one, more than 1,000 students at Simon Youth Academies from Seattle to Orlando accepted their high school diplomas during the seven-week-long 2014 graduation season. 

At some recent point, each of these graduates was at-risk of becoming a dropout statistic, and many expressed the sentiment of feeling like only a number in their traditional high schools. But their Academy experience was different – richer, more flexible and marked by personal attention.  At the Academies, students described feeling significant, often for the first time in their young lives.  They came to see themselves as much more than a statistic or a number.

Now, as high school graduates, numbers help tell their collective story in a new way.  Each graduate will earn on-average $350,000 more over the course of their lifetimes than students who drop out.  Among this most recent group of Academy graduates, their boosted earning potential adds up to $350 million in positive economic impact! And for our students who continue their educational pursuits at 2- or 4-year institutions, that number will increase.

Here’s one final math lesson to wrap up the 2013-14 school year:


“Thank you for saving my son.”

Students who graduated this year from Simon Youth Academy at Northgate Mall in Seattle, Washington heard remarks from a non-traditional commencement speaker – their classmate’s mother.  Jen Gonyer-Donohue shared the following reflections on her son’s year at the Academy and the positive impact her family has experienced:

I must admit: it feels a bit strange standing up here in front of all of you when I’m not an Academy student. I’m not a teacher. I’m not a Seattle celebrity, politician, or a local hero who did something amazing in the community. I’m just a mom… a mom whose heart is bursting with happiness for every single one of you tonight.

I was asked to speak for a few minutes and reflect on Simon Youth Academy at Northgate Mall and to share “our story.” There’s a problem with sharing “our story” though. You see, our story begins at a very low point in our lives, when another school failed us and was bringing us to our knees – the last school in the district to do so in a long string of schools starting in 2002. But instead of rehashing the negative historical context, I want to tell you about a year . . . this last school year at the Academy.

This last year at Simon Youth Academy at Northgate Mall, my son was given the opportunity take as many classes as he wanted so that he could finally learn at his own pace. The first day of the school year in September, he had the credits of a junior. Today, he is a graduated senior.

This last year at Simon Youth Academy at Northgate Mall, my son was no longer micromanaged and coddled to death by the IEP system. Instead, his teachers presented opportunities to him, guided him, but ultimately held him accountable for his own learning and progress. He rose to the occasion and learned – finally – what it means to take responsibility for his own education. The teachers at the Academy empowered him to take control of his own learning. Instead of treating him as a child in a state of arrested development, the Academy allowed him to grow and transition into adulthood.

It hasn’t been easy. There is the old saying about leading a horse to water… and I must admit there are some days I poured the water down the horse’s throat. But the Academy gave us that water.

One year ago this month, we found ourselves begging our son to not drop out. We understood how awful school was for him, but it was all we could do to keep him in. Fast forward one year later, and my new high school graduate is researching community college programs and filling out applications for next fall. I can only attribute this to Simon Youth Academy at Northgate Mall.

Thank you for saving my son. Or better put, thank you for giving my son the chance to save himself. Thank you for empowering all of these graduates to advocate for themselves, and to take control of their own education and destiny. Simon Youth Academy at Northgate Mall is a success because each one of you is a success. 

I’m looking out at the audience and see many people nodding their heads in agreement. I am sure that if we passed the mic around, many of you would share similar sentiments of gratitude to the Academy.

Graduates, please know that all of us – family you were born into and family you created, guardians, friends, and everyone who loves you – we are all terribly, terribly proud of you and we know you will do amazing things with your lives. Now go out there and do good in the world and continue to make us – and yourselves – proud.


The Masquerade Announces Larry Bird as 2014 Honoree

Celebration of Hoosier Basketball Legend to Benefit Simon Youth Foundation and Pacers Foundation

Indiana basketball legend, NBA Hall of Famer and Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird will be the honoree at The Masquerade at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis on Saturday, October 25, 2014.

From his early days at Springs Valley High School in French Lick, Ind. and Indiana State University to his renowned NBA career with the Boston Celtics and now with the Indiana Pacers, Bird always has risen to the top as a hardworking leader who inspires others to excel on and off the court. 
The Masquerade, now in its 13th year, is an annual tradition that has earned the reputation of being one of the most impactful, entertaining events in Indianapolis. More than $8.5 million has been raised in support of critical education and mentoring programs for at-risk youth.  

In 2014, the tradition continues as Simon Youth Foundation and Pacers Foundation team up to deliver another unforgettable Masquerade experience, with proceeds benefitting the programs of both organizations. 

Entertainment and other event details will be revealed in the weeks ahead.

The Masquerade is made possible through the generous support of PNC Bank as it returns to serve as the event's title sponsor. For ticket and sponsorship information, please contact Brandi Young at (317) 263-7694 or


In Their Own Words: Excerpts from Simon Youth Academy Students’ 2014 Graduation Speeches

"Great moments are born out of great opportunities."

I stand before you as a proud graduate of the Peabody Learning Academy  . . .  This program gave me back my life, and for that I will always be greatful. Being sick for many years has been what’s defined me, that is until this year. Now I am defined by what I can do.  This program gave me the independence to succeed academically, plan for college and dream of my future.

How do you say “thank you” for that? I have decided the best way to give back to my school is to go out in the world and make a difference. 

I want to be a pediatrician and work with kids like myself. I want to show them with determination, hard work, and a positive attitude, you can do anything. My goal is to work with chronically ill children. I understand this patient demographic will be challenging, but I anticipate and look forward to sharing some of my own experiences.

I want to thank everyone who has believed in me, encouraged me, stood by me and helped me. With all of your support and love, it has been an amazing year. I would like to say a special thank you to Mr. Bedard for finding me and encouraging me, and to Mark Whiting for introducing this program to Peabody.

Great moments are born out of great opportunities, and that is exactly what I am experiencing today. Thank you, Peabody Learning Academy. I will always be proud to call you my alma mater.

Nichole Kernweis ‘14
Simon Youth Peabody Learning Academy at Northshore Mall
Peabody, MA

"Here, I wasn’t just another student."

I would like to say “thank you” to everyone who supported me through this journey.  We went through some really rough times together, but we made it!

To the staff at the Academy: thank you for making this so much more than just a school.  I learned skills that will help me in the real world – skills that you can’t learn in a book.  I am so grateful that I got to do things like volunteer for my third grade teacher.  It was just one of the many experiences that I will never forget. 

Graduating means so much more because I had to overcome obstacles to earn my diploma.  And the Academy helped me overcome those obstacles.  Here, I wasn’t just another student.  I was part of a family.

Logan Carter ‘14
Simon Youth Clark Pleasant Academy
Whiteland, IN